written by Shimizu Chatori
In 2019, Mori Art Museum (Tokyo) opened its doors to eager audiences to “Shiota Chiharu: The Soul Trembles” – the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of Berlin-based artist SHIOTA Chiharu. Her works of art, which has in the past been selected to represent Japan at the Venice Biennale International Art Exhibition 2015, is known to explore the enigma of life and death, and to pursue ecumenical concepts such as the question of existence. Here, I encountered a work, which tossed me into a universe of perplexity on whether to place more weight on the “artist’s intentions” or the “viewer’s interpretations”, when contemplating over artistic value.
The exhibition presented many of Shiota’s works concerning the concept of memory, such as a work celebrating various memories of faceless strangers in the 230 window frames said to have been collected in Berlin after the unification of East and West Germany. Another work, born from an inordinately personal memory of the artist herself who underwent surgery and chemotherapy of her recurrent cancer, was hauntingly noteworthy. Upon walking through many of her displays, “Accumulation – Searching for the Destination” appeared at the last exhibition space. This is the work which kept me up at night with the above-mentioned question.
This work encompasses 440 used suitcases of various materials and dimensions, which are said to have been collected in a flea market in Berlin. Each of the suitcases were hung from a high position on the ceiling with a red rope, creating an accumulated band of suitcases meandering like a gentle river from a position low enough to barely touch the floor, while countless motors were soullessly vibrating the aged suitcases. I overheard one viewer who happened to stand next to me, enthusiastically telling his companion that it was a work in which he could feel the lofty memories carried by each object, while he took some pictures of the floating objects with his smartphone.
Shiota Chiharu “Accumulation – Searching for the Destination” (2019)
Now let’s shift our perspectives from the visual and the conceptual observations to another dimension: sound. Although often overlooked, “Accumulation – Searching for the Destination” embraces three layers of acoustic materials. These are (1) the cold, heartless sound of the continuing motor which rings the frequency band around 415Hz (G-sharp), (2) the sounds of the suitcase bodies and hinges colliding and rubbing against each other, and (3) the soundscape of the space (in this exhibition at that specific time, the soundscape was a concoction of viewers’ voices and sounds of their shoes, as well as sounds leaking through from other surrounding works). While the visuals of the work did not resonate in me to what the viewer standing next to me enthusiastically was claiming, I was stricken by the sense of desperation in the sounds of empty suitcases colliding with each other.
“Sound is a ‘sign’ and shows various things and induces various kinds of events”, says soundscape designer AKEDO Shin-ya in “The Soundscape Design from a Point of View of the Signicity of the Sound” (2010). As such, the sounds of empty suitcases colliding with each other might be executing their mission to function as a metaphor for the inconvenient reality: “everything has an end”.
Shiota is highly regarded around the world for her video works such as “Wall” and large installations such as “The Web of Time” in which black and red threads are stretched like capillaries. However, she is not an artist known to focus on “sound” as her primary medium. “In Silence”, a work said to have been born from her childhood memories, encompasses a charred grand piano and seats set up to represent audience seats. Shiota uses black yarn rising up from the grand piano as if the musical experience was suddenly visualized. Nonetheless, this work, too, does not use physical “sound” as a medium. Furthermore, she has also collaborated with contemporary music composers and performers, yet, it has not gone out of the boundaries of a “collaboration” – Shiota is not known as a sound artist.
As such, I am unsure whether one should interpret “Accumulation – Searching for the Destination” as a work of sound art. OKI Keisuke, appointed professor of Tokyo Zokei University, defines “sound art” in Bijutsu Techo: Art WIKI as “an art form with sound as a focus of expression, in which sound is used in various purposes and contexts in an interdisciplinary manner”. However, it is still unclear whether “sound” is used as a “focus of expression” in this work. Nonetheless, this work cannot be fully realized without the presentation of both visual and auditory aspects. Without “sound”, there is no way to tell the viewers that the suitcases are just empty “shells”. Putting aside the debate of whether it was the artist’s intention or not, with the visual effects of the diverse and irregular suitcases rising to the upper world, as well as the auditory effects of using the signicity of the sounds of empty, inorganic “shells” colliding with each other, I have experienced this work from an acoustic perspective.
Even when a work is not generally interpreted as sound art, we sometimes are able to examine the functions and the symbolism of its sound by opening our ears. As I have mentioned throughout this article, it is unclear for me whether Shiota regarded “Accumulation – Searching for the Destination” as sound art, and if she used the above mentioned three layers of acoustic materials intentionally. However, artists’ ideas are not limited to how they consciously present their works, and their subconscious manifestation oozes out from the presented work in the most unexpected places. What makes art an art is not only the intentional presentation of the materials of the artist, but also the third-person perspective of observing it, listening to it, and examining the unconscious expressions of the artist.